Saturday, July 15, 2017

Everyday Crucifixions

When I was a kid I would go to mass every Good Friday (a "holy day of obligation," as we called it) to mark the occasion of the death of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I would sit or stand or kneel as appropriate in the pew as we made our way through the liturgy. That mass would inevitably include a passage from the Gospel of Matthew (this, at least, is how I remember it) in which Pontius Pilate presents Jesus, bloodied from torture, to the crowd and asks what they (what we) want to do with him.

"Crucify him!" we would shout from our pews, in accordance with the Scriptures.

The priest, playing the part of Pilate, would protest Jesus' innocence, and we would shout once again from our Bibles, "Crucify him!"

Pilate/the priest would then declare his own innocence of Jesus' execution, to which we would respond in one voice, "His blood be upon us and our children." And then Jesus would be delivered to his cross.

I feel like I witnessed a crucifixion this week. Hastily assembled evidence to suggest that someone might have the temerity to hold a different view of things from The Powers That Be (the PTB, as my friends and I used to refer to people who made our decisions for us). A trial on Twitter. A crowd, caught up in righteous indignation and bloodlust (and, I'd imagine, a fair bit of fear), beating a body bloody before a final chorus of "Away with him!" If this whole thing doesn't kill the guy, I'll be surprised.

Our litany at the mass was predicated on the start of the scene, in which Pilate offers the crowd one of two people to pardon: Jesus or Barabbas. This offer was, as the Scriptures tell us, a custom—a courtesy to Jews under imperial rule, perhaps, as they celebrated the Passover (recalling their historic deliverance from imperial rule). It occurs to me that perhaps every year Pilate made the crowd this offer: to pick a prisoner to pardon, and thus condemn another prisoner to be crucified. It occurs to me that this custom was its own kind of liturgy, one that implicated the crowd in every execution. The guilt or innocence of the person to be pardoned and the person to be crucified would be immaterial; the point would be the theater of it. The crowd would have gotten in the habit of sending people to a humiliating death.

The Romans sustained their empire for centuries. The crowd remained under imperial control that entire time.

There are no firm numbers of people crucified by the Romans, but estimates run to the thousands. Imagine giving your assent to each torturous death. Imagine once a year, from your own birth to your own death, participating in this theater of pardon, inviting the blood of the unlucky runner up on yourself and your children. What would it do to your soul?

There were some in the crowd that day who surely remained silent. (It's even possible that some people shouted in favor of pardoning Jesus and crucifying Barabbas. No one shouted such things in the Good Friday masses I've attended. But I do suspect some people, both at mass and in the crowd that day, kept their mouths shut.)

Some of those people likely were self-congratulatory: They knew in their hearts that Jesus was innocent of the charges against him. They may have consoled themselves, as Jesus was led away to be crucified, with the confidence that they were better people than the crowd: They knew better, and so they stayed silent.

There were others, I'm sure, who remained silent because they didn't have a voice. Mothers and daughters and sisters, the Bible tells us, were at Jesus' crucifixion in silent, mournful witness. Their participation or nonparticipation in Pilate's liturgy was irrelevant to the PTB because they were women, marginalized among the marginalized.

I'm sure there were others who had a voice but said nothing out of fear or despair or resignation. After all, in the face of such awful displays of terrific power, what really is there to be said?

Imagine that every year you opted out of this theater of pardon, and it went on without you. What would it do to your soul?

I feel like I witnessed a crucifixion this week. It wasn't the crucifixion of God. Just another ordinary, run of the mill crucifixion. But I participated in this theater nonetheless, and I watched a man be ushered off to the final humiliation of his life. And then I went back to work.

The good news, I suppose, is that there was a time when God took just such a theater, just such a soul-wrenching act, and saved us all through it. And if God can make good of the execution of God—the mass betrayal of God—then I suppose he can make good of every little crucifixion we lend our voice to, every little crucifixion we sit silently and watch.

It's Saturday now. May this latest victim's blood be on us and our children. I think God could make some good of it.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Lest We Forget How Fragile We Are: Sting and Peter Gabriel in Concert

The inner life of every person is a secret world. We can speculate, even intelligently, about why people do what they do, but we can do no more than that. So our speculation is informed as much by our own secret worlds as it is by those we're observing.

I enter into this reflection on the concert my wife and I went to last summer with this in mind mainly because of the responses I've gotten from people when I've talked about it. It was a shared performance by two rock music legends--Sting, who fronted The Police at Shea Stadium in New York (the first to do so since the Beatles) and whose music I have been known to require interns to listen to; and Peter Gabriel, who led the band Genesis before they became crossover sensations/pop sellouts and who, more successfully than pretty much anyone, made art-rock commercially viable, not to mention morally relevant. Some of the people I've talked about the concert with have rolled their eyes and complained about washed up has-beens coasting on their aging reputations. Others had no idea who I was talking about. Their reactions, frankly, probably explain why I left this post in draft for nine months.

But for me, Sting and Peter Gabriel have nothing to prove, and the fact that they're still willing in their sixties to subject themselves to the gruel of a massive tour is simply a gift that I gladly accept. Regardless of how long its been since they charted a single, their music is still relevant, made weightier by the passage of time and the unrelenting stream of ephemera that claims chart status. There are charting artists today who will still be performing their songs forty years from now, but they are few; time will reveal which of them measures up to these two guys in the harsh light of history. In the meantime, I respect history, so I made my wife buy us tickets for my birthday, and off we went.

Sting is a jazz guy--he likes to improvise, to play with the basic structure of his own music. I've seen him live three times and he's never performed "Roxanne" the same way. (Props for segueing into "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone," thid time around. although I don't think it really worked.)

Peter Gabriel, by contrast, is a performance artist disguised as a pop star. I remember as a kid struggling to understand him pulling a costume over his head and saying into the microphone, "A flower." He's not singing or playing so much as he is performing. So every move he makes, every step he takes, is tightly choreographed (see what I did there?). If Sting likes to be in the moment, Peter Gabriel likes to make a moment. So if you've ever trolled the Internet looking for video of him performing your favorite song live, it probably looked and sounded pretty similar to what I heard and saw on this tour.

This contrast in styles and even philosophies of performance had an impact on the show. On balance, I think Peter Gabriel won the night--his performances were more memorable because he set out to make them so. Only someone as naturally melancholy as Peter Gabriel could write a song as resilient as "Don't Give Up" or as joyous as "In Your Eyes." Sting's performances, though, were less predictable and more fun. The transitions between the two were awesome, even if the on-stage banter between them got a little awkward.

Anyway, here's the set list:

Zaar (recording)
The Rhythm of the Heat
If I Ever Lose My Faith in You
Digging in the Dirt
Invisible Sun
Games without Frontiers
Shock the Monkey (Sting)
Secret World (Peter Gabriel)
Driven to Tears (Sting)
Red Rain (Peter Gabriel)
Dancing with the Moonlit Knight ("They're selling England by the Pound"), leading into Message in a Bottle (Sting; Peter Gabriel sang background)
Don't Give Up (Peter Gabriel)
Mercury Falling (Sting)
Big Time (Peter Gabriel; Sting sang background)
Englishman in New York (sung together)

Solsbury Hill (Peter Gabriel)
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic (Sting)
If you Love Somebody Set Them Free slow jam (Peter Gabriel)
Roxanne/Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone (Sting)
Love Can Heal (Peter Gabriel, dedicated to Jill Cox)
Desert Rose (Sting)
In Your Eyes (Peter Gabriel; Sting on backup vocals)

Every Breath You Take

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Choose a Side: Taylor Swift v Adele

We are in the midst of a season of conflict. Batman is taking on Superman. Iron Man is taking on Captain America. Bernie is taking on Hillary. Donald Trump is taking on human dignity and civil discourse.

It's time to take another side: Taylor Swift versus Adele.

Neither has a new album out, so don't panic. You haven't missed out on anything. This is a theoretical war, a battle of tastes. But it's no less fraught with inner turmoil than all the others. Both Adele and Taylor captured hearts throughout the world long ago. They've chosen to grow up in front of us, mastering the art of self-disclosure while the rest of us settle for sloppy selfies and boring blog posts. We are invested in them both.

So, which one are we invested in more?

Adele is a powerhouse, no doubt. She has an instantly recognizable voice and sings anthemically every time she takes the mic. Sure, she's young and silly and fun-loving, but when she sings she's all business. Even with The Roots playing children's music behind her, even when James Corden is driving her through the streets of LA, when she sings, you take her seriously.

Taylor Swift is the better lyricist, and her music offers more variety. All you millennials, and all those kids coming up behind you, know intuitively that you'll be dancing to Taylor Swift at your kids' wedding receptions, and that they'll be dancing along with you. If you're dancing to Adele there, chances are you'll be the only one on the floor, dancing with your kid.

But Taylor's also borne up longer under more social pressure. She's the perennial underdog—literally: People dog on her relentlessly about her relationships, her voice, her agency, whatever. She's suffered the poorly timed chivalry of Kanye West leaping to Beyonce's defense during Taylor's award acceptance speech, and the kind-hearted condescension of Ryan Adams "proving" she's a good songwriter by recording a track-by-track version of her album while it was still at the top of the charts. Like Captain America, she's been through the war in a way Adele, like Iron Man, never has. Even the Bible seems to be against her: "The race," it assures us, "is not to the swift" (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

Sorry, Adele. I love you, but I'm Team Taylor.

Now, you might be saying, "What about Beyoncé?" That is a perfectly legitimate question, despite the fact that our template (DC's Batman v Superman, Marvel's Captain America: Civil War, America's election process) only tolerates binaries. Nevertheless, Beyoncé holds a similar place in our hearts for similar reasons to both Taylor and Adele. In my mind, she is to them what Captain Marvel is to Batman and Superman, or what Captain Marvel is to Iron Man and Captain America. Captain Marvel exists in both comic book continuities but occupies an entirely unique space in each. In Marvel, she's in a completely different universe. In DC, he shows up every now and then completely out of the blue and saves the day. Sound like Beyoncé to you?

In any case, by setting up this binary I mean her no disrespect. At the end of the day, whether you're Team Taylor, Team Adele, or a soldier in the army of Queen Bey, we all know who runs the world.


So, what about you? Team Taylor or Team Adele?

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Five Little Letters: An Easter Reflection

This was originally posted at my InterVarsity Press blog "Strangely Dim," Easter 2011.

The other day I found this sheet of paper sitting in the printer. About two thirds of the way down the page, about an inch in from the left margin, were five little letters in tiny little type: J-e-s-u-s. That's it - nothing else. Such a tiny little word, made more weighty by being surrounded by nothing.

It was an accident of formatting, I'm sure, that "Jesus" showed up all by himself on that page. Maybe a misplaced hard page break or a cell that spilled over the printable area on the page previous. These things happen in a publishing house. But it's an interesting way of looking at Jesus: five little letters, all by themselves, not where you'd expect them. It's arresting in its simplicity.

We're generally uncomfortable with simplicity attached to greatness. Simplicity isn't appropriate to superstars, we figure, and so we try to do them a favor by filling up the space with whatever gravitas we can. I'm reminded of King Saul, dressing up shepherd boy David in his kingly armor to the point that David couldn't even move. I'm reminded of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of a donkey, with random people making all sorts of obsequious gestures in his path. When simplicity is perpetrated upon us by people we admire, we overcompensate a bit; we offer what we can, even if no offering is solicited. Sometimes all we can think to contribute is our own beard-stroking, chin-tapping egos. If our heroes are going to be so stubbornly simple, we'll have to be pretentious on their behalf.

I'm reminded of one of the more remarkable meetings of the twentieth century, at least in terms of popular culture: John Lennon's first encounter with Yoko Ono. She, an avant-garde performance artist, was exhibiting at a gallery in London; he, a world-renowned singer-songwriter, was looking for a good time. Two giant personalities filling one room; simplicity was probably the last thing on anyone's mind.

Part of the exhibit was a white ladder to the ceiling, where the viewer would find a magnifying glass. Looking at the ceiling through the magnifying glass, the viewer would find three little letters: Y-e-s. Yes.

"You feel like a fool," John told an interviewer years later, "you could fall any minute - and you look through it and it just says 'YES.'" It was a stark contrast to the sort of hypercritical vibe that attends to much pretentiousness and characterized the time: "all anti-, anti-, anti-. Anti-art, anti-establishment." Lennon was hooked, and he soon came to be more identified with Yoko than anyone else in his life - even his songwriting partner Paul McCartney, even his iconic band The Beatles.

John eventually wrote "The Ballad of John and Yoko," a plainspoken chronicle of their relationship that compared their experience to that of Jesus: misunderstood, expected to behave in ways they were unwilling to behave, persecuted for being countercultural and having convictions and being, for lack of a better word, simple. "The way things are going," Lennon mused as he sang, "they're gonna crucify me." What sustained Lennon in the face of such pretentious backlash was those three little letters, that soft-spoken "Yes."

I'm reminded of the apostle Paul's declaration to the Corinthian church, an assurance that sustained them through the early decades of the church's formation, beset with persecution and misunderstanding: "No matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ." Yes is a hard word to come by, to be honest, particularly during a recession or a depression or a natural disaster or a nuclear calamity or whatever. I have a friend who once whispered to me gravely in the wee hours of the night that the world will be devastated within twenty years by at least one of three things: a global weather event, a global economic catastrophe, or a global war. So far it looks as though all he got wrong was the timing.

And yet still God has made these promises, and still by faith every Easter we declare with Paul that all those promises are "Yes" in Christ. It's an act of defiance that looks suspiciously like an act of naivete, even delusion, and yet what else can we say?

I'm reminded of three little days after the death of God, when a woman named Mary shuffled despondently, in her mourning clothes, into a garden to honor the dead. There, unexpectedly, she found Jesus--no big fanfare, no bold or italic or serifs or 40-point type; just Jesus, plain and simple, all five little letters of him. And while the Scriptures don't report this, I imagine when she cried out in awareness that she saw a resurrected Jesus standing there, he responded simply by whispering three little letters: "Yes."